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Apple TV can calibrate your TV with an iPhone—but should you let it?

Can Apple TV really make your TV look better?

A person points an Apple TV remote to a smart TV. Credit: Reviewed / TJ Donegan

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For sticklers who demand the very best from their TV’s performance, hiring a professional calibrator is the way to go. But if you’ve already spent top dollar on the best TV that fits in your budget, the prospect of spending even more on a professional calibration might make your head spin.

Apple TV, one of our favorite streaming devices, wants to help. The little black box features a color-calibration option that, with the help of an iPhone, aims to “fix” your TV’s color for optimal viewing. But is it worth the effort? Here’s how to use Apple TV's calibration feature.

What do you need to color-calibrate your TV with Apple TV?

An Apple TV device and remote sit underneath a television.
Credit: Reviewed / TJ Donegan

Apple TV is among our top picks for streaming devices. To use its color calibration software, you’ll need an iPhone with Face ID.

An Apple TV streaming box is obviously an essential component, but you’ll also need an iPhone equipped with Face ID in order to run the color calibration procedure.

In addition, your Face ID-enabled iPhone needs to be running iOS version 14.5 or later. At the time of publishing, we’re a full generation removed from iOS version 14.5, so there’s a good chance your iPhone is already updated for this feature.

How do I use Apple TV’s color balance calibration feature?

First, navigate your way to the Apple TV Settings menu. From there, select Video and Audio. You’ll need to scroll down to find the Color Balance option, which is located beneath the Calibration submenu.

Make sure to check the Format option at the top of the Video and Audio menu. If it’s set to 4K Dolby Vision, you won’t be able to access the Color Balance option further down the menu. Instead, the menu will inform you that your TV doesn’t need color balancing, as Dolby Vision can only be calibrated by a professional.

To unlock the Color Balance option, select a different video format from the top of the Video and Audio menu. Any format that doesn’t reference Dolby Vision will render the Color Balance option usable.

Once you’ve selected the Color Balance option, you’ll be greeted by the following screen:

A person holds an iPhone to change the color correction on a darkened television.
Credit: Apple

This is the first thing you’ll see when you select Color Balance from your Apple TV’s Video and Audio settings menu.

With your iPhone’s software up to date, all you have to do is position yourself (and your iPhone) close to the TV.

A notification box should appear on your iPhone asking you to position the phone an inch away from your TV with the two displays facing one another. At the same time, an iPhone-shaped outline should appear on the TV. Position your phone within that outline.

A person holds an iPhone at night toward a darkened sky.
Credit: Apple

Your TV will cycle through several colors and neutral tones during the color-balance process.

For the next several seconds, your TV will display colors and various neutral tones within the iPhone-shaped outline. Your phone’s light sensor is doing all the work here, communicating color and contrast information to your Apple TV.

Once the process concludes, you’ll be shown a short, looping video (aerial footage of a beach). Before you decide if you’d like to use the newly made color tweaks, you can switch back and forth between your Apple TV’s original color profile and the “calibrated” color profile. If you don’t like what you see, simply select “Use Original” instead of “Use Balanced.”

Should I let Apple TV calibrate my TV’s colors?

An adage I often find myself returning to when discussing TV settings is, “go with whatever looks best to you.” To that end, I recommend anyone who’s interested in this feature to give it a whirl and see how it looks. After all, if you don’t like what you see, you can always reject the results.

However, there’s a crucial distinction between allowing the Apple TV to calibrate its own color output and calibrating the TV itself. The Apple TV’s Color Balance feature isn’t making any adjustments to your TV whatsoever. All it’s doing is adjusting how Apple TV content looks by the time it reaches your display.

As a result, if you hop away to a different input and exit Apple TV altogether, your TV won’t be taking any of those picture adjustments along. You’ll be right back where you started: with a variety of preset picture modes to choose from, along with whatever picture settings your TV happens to offer.

Apple TV’s Color Balance feature may very well improve the look of whatever you’re watching on Apple TV, but it won’t improve the look of your TV across all of your devices. Further, the camera on the iPhone doesn’t have optics sensitive enough for a truly accurate color calibration when compared to a professional job.

Is a professional TV calibration worth it?

A person uses a device to calibrate the color and brightness of a television screen.
Credit: Reviewed / Chris Snow

Calibrating a TV is an in-depth process that makes changes to the TV itself—not just one connected device.

Hiring a professional calibrator is a serious investment of both time and money. A calibration will leave you with at least one picture mode that can be applied to all HDMI inputs and streaming apps, or even multiple picture modes to choose from (depending on the time of day or type of content).

Calibrators are also equipped with specialized—and expensive—gear designed to calibrate displays. Color calibration is only part of the full calibration process. Pro calibrators will also look at adjusting a TV's grayscale and dynamic range (the difference between dark and bright), a more important component of the image based on how our eyes react to light. But unless you're especially picky about your picture quality, this may be overkill.

The easiest way to improve the look of your TV without shelling out extra cash is to simply choose the best picture mode (such as Movie or Cinema mode) for whatever you’re watching. We also recommend disabling eco mode (or any energy-saving feature your TV might offer).

Apple TV’s Color Balance feature is a limited solution at best, and it's no substitute for a professional calibration. If you can't afford the pro job, though, simply choosing the right picture settings—with the right TV—should be enough.

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